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SK ratifies new deal for teachers

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Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2013 10:30 am

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — A year-and-a-half after ratifying a three-year contract, the teachers and the School Committee have ratified a three-year collective bargaining agreement that will supersede the previous agreement in September.

In summer 2011, the two sides approved a contract after a bitter battle that had union members picketing negotiations and packing School Committee meetings in protest. But that deal included language allowing the contract to be reopened twice during its period if either side provided written notice by June 15, 2012. Over the summer, union leadership asked for the contract to be reopened.

The agreement, approved on a 6-1 vote in a Sunday executive session, runs from September 1, 2013 to August 31, 2015.

Under the terms of the new agreement, Step 10 teachers – the largest group of teachers in the district – will receive a lump sum pay raise next year, while the remaining teachers in the district’s largest collective bargaining unit will see their salaries frozen, with the exception of a 2.25 percent step increase in two years.

The former contract froze salaries for two years while significantly increasing the cost of the health care co-pay, resulting in a net loss at a time when the School Committee acknowledged, in a statement Tuesday, that workload was “increasing.”

“Mike [Farrelly] and I were happy with the way negotiations were carried out. Overall, we are pleased,” said Lori Marshall, co-president, National Education Association – South Kingstown, the union representing 350 teachers. “We are very happy we can offer them some financial increase. Granted, it’s not as much as we would have liked for next year.”

Members on both sides of the negotiating table lauded an interest-based approach to the bargaining.

“I’ve been involved in all of the negotiations for the last 20 years, and this had the most substantive conversations about education. Frankly, we did business in a very different way,” said S. Scott Mueller, Tuesday night.

“We truly appreciated the work of the union leadership through the entire process,” said Chairwoman Maureen Cotter. “We couldn’t be happier with the outcome. It really does focus on the children.”

According to an impact statement prepared by Director of Administrative Services John Ritchotte, the contract will save the district $525,574 over three years. Approximately $498,410 in the lump sum salary increase for Step 10 teachers and $41,287 in FICA expenses are offset by approximately $1.68 million in fiscal year 2013-14 budget reductions expected to be proposed in Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow’s budget, which will be discussed during a Jan. 29 work session.

The district was able to find a large portion of the money within its existing budget by reorganizing the staff to meet the future demands of state and federal law, and strategic planning goals for student achievement, according to the School Committee. Declining enrollment, retirements and resignations also factored in to the decision.

In the second year of the contract, approximately $795,545 in budget reductions will offset a $582,976 increase for the 2.25 percent step increase for Step 1 to Step 9 teachers.

Pension expenses of $70,423 and FICA expenses of $44,598 also will be offset elsewhere in the budget, according to the impact report.

Teachers at the top two steps will pay the highest co-shares on health insurance, 20 percent, while the remaining teachers will pay between 15 and 18 percent, depending on longevity.

“Our teachers are very dedicated and very hard working. We are happy we can offer them something with the increased medical costs,” said Marshall.

The agreement also reduces class size by one student per class at the elementary and middle school levels, a caveat including a so-called flexibility factor for the School Committee to ensure additional sections – and additional costs – need not be added if unplanned students arrive and register at the beginning of the school year.

“The reduction of the class size is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Marshall. Previously, she said, if classes were full in a building and a student had moved in, another class would have to be added, resulting in a shuffling of the classes.

Additional learning opportunities for children also will be available. Under the previous contract, the district limited its after school and summer learning opportunities because of cost prohibitions, because teachers had to be paid a per diem pay rate to teach them. The district recognized by dramatically reducing the cost to the district, they could increase these opportunities.

“What that means is the School Committee is hoping to offer after-school opportunities, as well as high school summer school programs, and there will be a posted rate applied to that position,” said Marshall. “So the rate would be in line with what other districts are doing.”

Citing transparency, School Committee member Jonathan Daly-LaBelle cast the lone vote against the contract.

“The reason I voted against it is not knowing what the proposed reductions were. Also it seemed clear to me most of the reductions identified in the impact statement that went along with the contract were not tied to the contract,” said Daly-LaBelle during Tuesday’s School Committee meeting.

Stringfellow said preliminary budget analysis suggests a gross reduction of between 25 and 30 jobs.

“What point will we be aware where the cuts will specifically take place?” Daly-LaBelle asked.

Stringfellow suggested factors guiding budget cut discussions will include data from Uniformed Chart of Accounts, which documents per pupil spending in the district and compares it to the same costs in other school districts in the state.

“That will unfold until I hit the $1.6 million,” said Stringfellow. “Where we are spending above [other districts] is where I’m going to focus the majority of our efforts.”

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